Automation is often thought of in terms of robotics and assembly lines. That’s certainly accurate, but anywhere a business is using humans for repetitive tasks such as data entry and information processing, there is an opportunity for automation.
On the shop floor, automation can be used for sorting, counting, packaging and manufacturing tems. This is an example of deploying capital hardware to automate production processes. But there is a lot of room for automation in the back office, as well; it can speed up writing checks, manually processing invoices and creating reports by hand, for example. Paper processes and extensive use of spreadsheets to move data around are all tasks that can be automated using a combination of software technologies.
Smart Business spoke with Glenn Plunkett, director of application development at Clark Schaefer Hackett, about how businesses are using automation and custom software development to overcome current business challenges.
What business challenges are companies facing today that could be addressed with automation?
A timely example is staffing. Businesses of all sizes are struggling to attract and keep workers. Introducing automation to address this doesn’t mean replacing people with automation. Instead, it can augment staff to help them accomplish more while enabling humans to do what technology can’t: be creative.
Another challenge is scaling the business. The processes that allowed you to reach $10 million in sales, for example, won’t get you to $50 million. Automation builds capacity, accuracy and agility.
Many small and mid-sized businesses across industries are just beginning to adopt automation in its different forms. Business leaders have begun to look into ways to streamline work with automation. As hardware and software automation tools have become more accessible, even to smaller businesses, the pace of adoption is increasing. The forces of the pandemic and staffing shortages have increased the sense of urgency, yet many businesses are still in the early stages of adoption and aren’t aware of all the available opportunities.
How do companies determine if automation is right for them?
In many ways, automation goes hand in hand with continuous improvement and should be included as part of these initiatives as well as strategic objectives. Business leaders should focus on individual business processes first, determining how to automate those, then turn their attention to how various processes interface with one another to discover any automation needs. Analyzing what’s possible isn’t always so easy, though. Businesses can benefit from an external perspective to help recognize automation possibilities, so it’s a good idea to work with an experienced consultant to help define the opportunities and analyze the work processes that can benefit from automation.
Whom should companies work with to deploy an automation solution in their business?
There are many automation vendors out there, and most offer consulting and implementation services. Robot and cobot (a computer-controlled robotic device designed to assist a person) vendors, control systems vendors and robotic process automation software firms can all help with implementing their own products. However, many automation efforts include more than one process or type of hardware or software. And all of those efforts impact business workflow. Companies need the ability to coordinate these various aspects of a project, and if that skillset isn’t available in-house, consider a consultant to help get it done. Engaging a consultancy with insight into both the technology and the business impact aspects is a significant asset and can mean the difference between a smooth and successful project or an ineffective one.
Ultimately, automation is possible in every business. It can be employed in nearly every department and function, and might not be as expensive as many assume. But before starting an automation project, take a close look at the business processes themselves and attempt to fix what’s broken in those processes before implementing any automation. Throwing automation at a bad process will just exacerbate the issues.
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